September 27, 2006 By Indrajit Basu, International Correspondent
In a recent interview to BDA China, a Beijing-based technology consulting firm, Cao Jun the chief executive officer of IWNComm, the Chinese company that developed WAPI and vice-leader of China Broadband Wireless IP Standards Group (BWIPS) -- which is pushing WAPI for global recognition -- informed that China is taking rapid strides in promoting its home-grown WLAN within. And by end of this year, half of the new WLAN products in China is expected to be WAPI-complaint.
"IWNComm has made (sic) significant steps toward licensing, signing up original equipment makers of laptops, home electronics, small manufacturers and bigger players," Jun told BDA adding, "I believe over 50 percent of new WLAN products on the market will be WAPI-compliant by the end of 2006, driven by strong government support and demand from operators."
Experts say that along with the new policy that China announced in February that made that all government procurement of WLAN products to be WAPI compliant, a new WAPI Alliance that was set up the following month, and now an aggressive push to promote WAPI in its own market, China is all set to revive its war against the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11 standards family [commonly referred to as Wi-Fi] it began in 2003.
"I would say that the current debate over WAPI and Wi-Fi is a war or competition between different standard groups," says Meiqin Fang an analyst with BDA, "but the Chinese government's renewed support of WAPI is just a part of China's general policy to support domestic technology standards in all high-technology industry."
Indeed the long-running saga of WAPI, or Wired Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure, is a curious case of how an obscure technical standard, that makes no difference to an end user -- after all what difference does it make whether a laptop is using WAPI or the Intel-developed and ubiquitous 802.11 WLAN standard to access the Internet at the neighborhood Starbucks -- can become a high-decibel diplomatic issue in the Chinese government's efforts to shape new technology standards for the nation's economic advantage.
WAPI became a subject of controversy in 2003 when Chinese government selected this home-grown technology and controlled by its local companies as its national standard for WLAN and mandated that all WLAN equipment sold in China be WAPI-complaint as of December that year.
This not only meant that all 802.11-compliant equipment without WAPI couldn't be sold in China, but to be able to be WAPI-complaint, international vendors had to partner with government-selected Chinese companies for accessing the secret WAPI block cipher thereby revealing their products to IPR and business risks.
Naturally most of the WLAN industry from the 802.11-compliant equipment makers and various governments opposed that regulation. In their view it "served no justifiable or sound regulatory need and erected unnecessary trade barriers." For instance Intel realized that its popular Centrino chips were not compliant with the Chinese WAPI standards, and it had no other alternative but to withdraw from the Chinese WLAN equipment market.
Eventually bowing to the legitimate concerns about hampering global trade in WLAN equipment, and to pressures from highest levels of the US as well as global 802.11--compliant WLAN equipment makers, Wu Yi, the Vice Premier of China agreed to postpone promulgation of the regulation indefinitely in March 2004. But that agreement was hardly indefinite.
China started its crusade again in July 2004 when it sought to establish WAPI as a